Black Tunisians and the Pitfalls of Bourguiba’s Homogenization Project

Afifa Ltifi, Cornell University

“Liberty must be suppressed until the end of the war in Algeria– until the nation becomes homogeneous”- Habib Bourguiba (“Tunisia: No Time for Democracy -Times. 1958)[1]

In 2018, three black Tunisians appealed to the Ministry of Justice to change family names which they deemed injurious. Their last names of عتيق الدالي  (freed slave of el-Dali), الوريمي(‘urimi) and  الابيض (al-abyadh) did not only conjure the traumatic memory of slavery; they also connoted a genealogical gap in a country where individuals remain vulnerable to the premodern form of discrimination of lineage. Last names like shushan[2], atig (freed) and others, do not only evoke black Tunisians’ untraceable blood line but equally their perpetual foreignness, pushing them to the margin of what constitutes a Tunisian identity today. The fluidity of such last names, particularly shushan and ‘ucif, and their ability to transmute into slurs evinces their stigmatizing effect and explains the quests of many black Tunisians to change them.

The fundamentalist assimilative project of the Tunisian state has relegated theories of lineage and ancestral racial purity/impurity to the margins, but they continue to proliferate in what remains from a fading kin-based social structure in the country. Such disparaging names remain one of the many deficiencies of the state sponsored de-minoritization policies that were adopted by the father of the modern Tunisian nation Habib Bourguiba (1957-1987) and prolonged under his successor Zine El Abidine Ben Ali (1987-2011). Their color-blind policies intended to ingest heterogeneous entities and homogenize the nation, have inadvertently emphasized black Tunisians’ difference and underestimated the impact of racialized servitude on their identity formation. The rigidity of color-blind national policies that professed to enshrine full citizenship and suppress the memory of slavery neither washed away the stigma of slavery nor rendered black Tunisians equal to the majority.

Racialization; a byproduct of homogenization

Inspired by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s “Turkishness”[3], Bourguiba endeavored through state policies to create a model based upon the supremacy of “Tunisianness” (التونسة) in order to attenuate the distinctive socio-cultural differences of the then-fledgling Tunisian nation. For him, the persistence of agnatic alliances and kin-based society was antagonistic not only to black Tunisians’ integration into a Tunisian collectivity defined in part by theories of racial purity, but equally to the overall state formation. Bourguiba deemed what was called a “republic of cousins”[4] not only archaic and obsolete but threatening to the modernist national project of Tunisianité[5] that sought to homogenize the different social segments and instill the common sense of belonging to a Tunisian nation beyond religious or patrilineage affiliations.

To dismantle kin-based groupings and their political force, Bourguiba embarked upon a series of strict bureaucratic rules that he consolidated with patriarchalism[6], embodied in his own image of the father of the nation (al-zaim)[7]. Aggressive reforms and state policies such as building bureaucracy, centralizing government and introducing the progressive family law were meant to cultivate the nuclear family model and detach individuals from their extended kin-groups.[8]Patronymic names were introduced in 1959, building upon a policy begun during the colonial period to conscript Tunisians in the French military.[9] The project was relaunched upon independence not only to create administrative records and to carry out a census but also instill a Tunisian character and an identity beyond a kin-based tribal one. By the late 1950s, local committees were created and assigned the task of giving Tunisians patronymic last names and eliminating surnames that reflected one’s kinship line.”[10] The process was also coupled with the refining[11] of family names’ campaign that lasted until the 1970s, targeting last names that brought ridicule  to their holders, had a non Maghrebi/Tunisian character that suggested foreignness[12] or evoked hierarchies of the past like that of “Bey”[13]. The Husaynid family that governed Ottoman Tunisia (1705-1957) for instance was not allowed to hold El-Bey for a last name; they were forced to hold Al-Husayni, Bin Hussein or El-Adel instead.[14]

Yet, within the process of refining and changing family names, the stigma associated with Black slavery was actually reinforced and emphasized. While certain last names like Shushan (freed slave) were changed into Shair, Hamrouni and Zitouni for instance, such newly acquired names did not help black Tunisians to reinvent themselves. Instead, the new family names had reproduced the patron client relationships that bound slave and master’s descendants. Although no longer explicitly evoking the memory of slavery or the imperial Ottoman past that the state sought to erase, such new names did not delink black Tunisians from their previous masters, for those names were not deeply rooted in the kin-based structure. As such, black Tunisians’ kinlessness was implied if not further perpetuated by adopting last names of their ancestors’ masters.

The stigma of the genealogical gap that characterizes black ancestry did not get remedied with the adoption of their masters’ last names. Such patronymic names were at times changed into ones which instantaneously resurrected the history of black slavery in the country.  Names recalling epithets that denoted the groups’ ancestral social status, even considered as slurs today, became their badges of enslavement, well documented on the most authoritative official documents of birth certificates and national identity cards. When special committees did not assign black families the last names of their benefactors and patrons, they gave them injurious names such as Shushan and ātig (freed) that outrightly indicated their past servitude and indexed their genealogical gap.[15] A third group of names included surnames of previous slave-masters; i.e., a black family in Tunisia can hold “freed slave” of a given “Arab-Berber family” for a surname today. In these examples, el-Doghri as well as Bin Yedder, are popular last names of two affluent, historically slave-holding families in the southeast island of Djerba.[16] This, clashed with the intended purpose of the refinement of family names. While the change of family names was perhaps meant to restore dignity and confer a modern outlook to Tunisians, black Tunisians were left with last names that stained them as perpetual slave descendants and reproduced the memory of a social structure that antedated the formation of the state.

This comes in contrast with the case of descendants of white slaves, or rather Mamluks[17] of eastern Europe, northern Mediterranean and Circassian descent who did not bear the brunt of the legacy of their enslavement like black Tunisians.[18]Black Tunisians, with their black phenotype, historically entrenched naming practice, and physical proximity as extended fictive kin members to their previous masters’ offspring, were further racialized as slave descendants in ways white former slaves were not. [19]. White slave descendants were ingested into a culture that prized them for their whiteness[20], while black Tunisians transitioned from a social category of slaves to that of slave-descendants. It might be the historical incorporation of white female slaves in the Harem and the establishment of blood ties with the Ottoman elite that had shielded and helped them outgrow lineage-based discrimination. As per the male white slaves, incorporated into the Kul military system of slavery, it is perhaps due to their previous unmatched power that did not fully dissipate under colonialism and the later rise of the nation state

One can argue that such attempts at eradicating the political force of local patrimonialism were Janus -faced, particularly when pertaining to the predicament of black Tunisians. With the exception of black groups, lineage hierarchies have been mostly overcome by the majority today.[21] On the one hand, such family names’ policies might have counteracted the client patronage relations in which many slave descendants were trapped from the time of manumission (1890) to independence (1956). The focus of the state policies on the nuclear family and the evisceration of clan ties might have helped black Tunisians to relatively distance themselves and move away from such relations of subordination as they too, were considered Tunisian citizens and were encouraged to focus on the nuclear family as a kin-base and to overcome their own tribal affiliations that were strongly tied to their masters’ tribes. The state’s aggressive reform had helped reduce the political power of clans that were not only dangerous to the formation of the state but for their preservation of some form of pre-modern theories of racial purity of Arab-Berber descent that would have worsened the state of black Tunisians. Although clans’ subscription to premodern forms of lineage discrimination have not lost their efficacy in historicizing black Tunisians origins as slave descendants, their power remains limited.

On the other hand, the weakening of such kin-based solidarity and the political power of clans might have also perpetuated client patron relations in the country. I posit that the new patriarchalism, embodied in the transformative bureaucracy, might have depressed tribal claims to political power but inadvertently strengthened their attachment to codes of honor and the symbolic markers of a bygone period of prestige of slave ownership. For a desperate need to assert their now-limited superiority, Tunisians of so-called elevated Arab descent clung to that which bore witness to their past glory. They sought to reinforce the honor codes in order to preserve relations of subordination that no longer provided any economic benefit, but instead abstracted images that authenticated a past of honorable lineage and the wealth of slave ownership. Clinging to the past symbols of nobility, embodied in the patronage relations, crystallized ideas of superiority.

On the other end of the spectrum, slave-descendants and their offspring are also encouraged or manipulated to continue to perform certain traditional roles that reinforced the stigma, like performing or cooking at rites of passage, for instance, and for which they are symbolically rewarded. Such complicity from slave-descendants is perhaps exacerbated by their economic deprivation and disempowerment. In its attempts to deny that which antedated it, the Tunisian nation-state never recognized the economic disadvantage that slave descendants continue to suffer, as the recognition, runs the risk of singling  out the group, which in a country that seeks to homogenize, can run against the essence of its national ideology. This is not only a critique of the introduction of patronymic names and refining family names’ campaigns but also of the general state policies that targeted kin-based alliances in the country. The focus on such powerful tribes had diverted the attention from social groups that were historically subordinated to them like black Tunisians. Overall, in a country where the question of minorities is rendered impertinent and where race or ethnic-based data is banned, the singularity of black experience remains difficult to grapple with.

Black Tunisians have now sought to change last names that they considered humiliating and evocative of a stigmatizing history of servitude. While some had succeeded in changing their names, others were impeded by the rigidity of the state bureaucracy, more particularly the family name law. With the dissolution of last names committees by the 1970s, citizens’ request to change family names are usually either rejected or remain unsettled by the Ministry of Justice. It can be concluded hence that the rise of the nation state, although it trumped some of these issues of lineage and race, failed to completely wash away that which signaled these groups’ foreignness. Although it weakened some social structures that preceded its formation, it failed to remove the weight of history on black Tunisians’ identity formation. The event that ended in 1890 continues to inform how modern black Tunisians are perceived despite the state’s aggressive homogenization project.

Overall, one might judge the state-sponsored assimilative project successful in reducing difference and weakening kin-based alliances that might have further antagonized black Tunisians’ integration. Yet, such process did not account for the weight of history particularly that of slavery onto a visible minority group like black Tunisians. It did not only fail to erase the memory of slavery from the collective memory but even further racialized and differentiated them as perennial slave descendants. As it sought to produce uniform postcolonial subjects, black Tunisians remained vulnerable to the relics of slavery that continue to manifest not only in the vernacular culture but on official documents that supposedly testify to their Tunisian citizenship. The legacy of slavery today is entangled in both its erasure from the official national memory and historiography as well as in the never fading semantics that conjure it in black Tunisians’ last names. The persistence of such anachronistic epithets, as both slurs and family names, do not only index the weight of a suppressed history of slavery but also its racialization and the materiality of blackness that is both fundamentally migratory and thoroughly equated with slavery in a continent where blackness is supposedly indigenous.




[1] “No Time for Democracy.” TIME Magazine 72, no. 13 (September 29, 1958): 21.

[2] As a group, shwashin (plural of shushan), had historically preceded black west Africans (predominantly Kanuri and Hausa) in Tunisia. They are said to be enslaved around 1738 under the aegis of Youssef Dey (1610-1637) the Turkish ruler who built the slave market of Suq el-Birka, for the exclusive sale of black slaves. See,. Montana, Ismael. “TheBorie Colonies of Tunis” in Slavery, Islam and Diaspora, ed. Behnaz Mirzai, et al. (Africa World Press, 2009),155-168.

[3] Brown, L. Carl. “Bourguiba and Bourguibism Revisited: Reflections and Interpretation.” Middle East Journal 55, no. 1 (2001): 43-57. Accessed March 14, 2020.

[4] Taking inspiration from Germaine Tillion’s The Republic of Cousins: Women’s oppression in Mediterranean Society. See Tillion, Germaine. The Republic of Cousins: Women’s Oppression in Mediterranean Society. Al Saqi Books, 1983.

[5] Although historians trace its origin to the Berber Hafsid Dynasty (1229-1574), Tunisianité, an ideology of unity and homogeneity, became an official decolonial state ideology since the 1920s. See Bessis, Sophie. Histoire de La Tunisie : De Carthage à nos Jours. Tallandier, 2019.

[6] MOUNIRA M. CHARRAD. “Central and Local Patrimonialism: State-Building in Kin-Based Societies.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 636 (2011): 49

[7] Camau, Michel, and Vincent Geisser. Le Syndrome Autoritaire: Politique En Tunisie De Bourguiba à Ben Ali. Paris: Presses de la fondation nationale des sciences politiques, 2003.73-89

[8] Charrad, M. States and Women’s Rights: the Making of Postcolonial Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.57.

[9] See El-Habashi, Mohamed Ali. Altunisiyūn, al-ūsūl wa ‘al-Alkāb. Manshurāt Stumidia, 2018.

[10] Ibid.

[11] El-Habashi, Mohamed Ali. Altunisiyūn, al-ūsūl wa ‘al-Alkāb. Manshurāt Stumidia, 2018.99.

[12] Last names like El-Hawsi, Gnawi and bel-Manoubi for instance. See, El-Habashi, Mohamed Ali. Altunisiyūn, al-ūsūl wa ‘al-Alkāb. Manshurāt Stumidia, 2018.184-185.

[13] Ibid.

[14] El-Habashi, Mohamed Ali. Altunisiyūn, al-ūsūl wa ‘al-Alkāb. Manshurāt Stumidia, 2018.95.

[15] Nasri, Mariem. “AlkaabOnsoria”. The New Arab.11 August 2015.

[16] Issa, Nada. “Tunisia’s Dirty Secret”. Aljazeera. 17 March 2016.

[17] The literal meaning of Mamluk is “owned”. Mamluks were never outrightly designated as slaves. Even local Tunisian terms for them were not racialized and divergently differed from those reserved for black slaves and slave descendants.

[18] It is important to rectify that the slavery system under the Ottoman hegemony over the Tunisian province, was very multiethnic and it included white enslaved subjects both from the northern Mediterranean shores and Circassia.

[19] Through the story of the Mamluk Hussein Bin Abdallah and the wrangles about his inheritance, Historian M’hamed Oualdi’s Slave Between Empires evidences the sociopolitical as well as economic power of white enslaved that was not characteristic to black slaves. See, Oualdi, M’hamed. A Slave between Empires: a Transimperial History of North Africa. New York: Columbia University Press, 2020.

[20] Bono, Salvatore. D’esclaves à marins dans la méditerranée de l’époque Moderne. (L’ Harmattan, 2006).71.

[21] Theories of lineage in Tunisia did not have the similar socio-political weight like in modern day Mauritania or Sudan for instance. At least in a country with the most progressive citizenship laws in North Africa and the Arab world, such myths of Arab origin came to contradict the nation state’s modernist endeavors.